Sunday, August 24, 2008

"Congestion" Pricing For Internet Service? ISPs Now Starting To Implement Differential Bandwidth Caps And Pricing, Could End "Net Neutrality"

Do you enjoy having unlimited Internet access for one monthly price? Too bad - it may be going the way of the 8-track player and the drive-in movie theater, according to an August 23rd, 2008 article published in the Provo (UT) Daily Herald.

The Herald article discusses the case of Guy Distaffen in Silver Springs, New York. Lured by the promise of a year of free service on a two-year contract, he switched his Internet service from Time Warner Cable to Frontier Communications Corporation. This worked fine - until Frontier quietly updated its policies to say it would limit his Internet activity to 5 gigabytes per month, the equivalent of three DVD-quality movies. This change is further discussed on

And switching back to Time Warner may not necessarily be a good option. They're testing a five-gigabyte traffic cap for new users in Beaumont, Texas. Every gigabyte above that costs $1. More expensive plans have higher caps -- at $54.90 per month, the allowance is 40 gigabytes. And if they like the results, Time Warner may apply the same pricing structure elsewhere.

Why are Internet Service Providers (ISPs) doing this? They are trying to curb the growth of traffic on their networks, or at least make the subscribers who download the most pay more. They want to make the Internet a better conduit for movies and other content that comes in huge files. And cable companies in particular have been at the forefront of imposing and talking about usage caps, because their lines are shared between households. But Frontier's announcement shows that now phone companies are considering the same strategy. "Broadband crisis" has suddenly become an industry buzzword.

Caps on Internet usage are no different in concept than the limited number of minutes a cell phone subscriber gets each month. Internet use varies hugely from person to person, and service providers argue that the people who use it the most should pay the most. But the industry hasn't worked out where to set the limits, or how much to charge users who exceed them. Fearing a customer backlash, most providers are setting the limits at levels where very few would bump into them. Comcast Corp. has floated the idea of a 250-gigabyte monthly cap.

Frontier says it plans to start enforcing its 5-gigabyte cap next year. First, it will let customers know how much data they use each month, a figure that most people don't know how to track on their own (the tech-savvy Distaffen gets it from his Internet router). Then it will offer premium plans with higher caps to those who use more data.

Frontier says most of its 559,300 broadband subscribers consume less than 1.5 gigabytes per month. But in an e-mail to Frontier employees, Chief Executive Maggie Wilderotter said traffic is doubling every year, which means that by the time the caps would be put in place, a lot more users will exceed them. In two years, the average user could be consuming 6 gigabytes of traffic per month if the current growth rate holds up.

The company claims the growth of traffic requires them to invest millions in its network and infrastructure, threatening its profitability. But Philip Dampier disagrees, saying the costs of network equipment and connecting to the wider Internet are falling.

So how would most of us as Internet users be affected by a five gigabyte cap? The traffic allowance is enough for maybe 15,000 Web pages, or tens of thousands of e-mails, but as the Internet becomes rich with video, there is more and more content available that eats up gigabytes. Distaffen said he reaches five gigabytes in a week even though he doesn't download movies or play games online. He does have a device that links a ham radio to the Internet, allowing distant radio enthusiasts to use his broadband connection. But that makes up only a fifth of his traffic.

The article doesn't speculate about the effect on bloggers. Fifteen thousand Web pages per month averages out to 500 Web pages per day. I haven't actually tracked the number of pages I visit, but a rough estimate would be 100 pages per day in the course of preparing blog posts, since both my blogs are news analysis blogs requiring multiple visits to media websites. But accessing YouTube videos could magnify the effect. If video burns up more bandwidth, then watching only 10 YouTube videos could consume the same bandwidth as visiting 100 ordinary Web pages. And I'm not about to link to or embed a video on my blogs without watching it first, in full. So initially, a five gigabyte limit would probably not impact me.

My ISP has not discussed any bandwidth limits yet. I have a bundled plan that allows unlimited Internet access for a fixed price. I've also not heard of any other Alaska providers considering more stringent bandwidth limits - yet. But what starts down in the lower 48 invariably works its way up to the Last Frontier.

Differential caps and pricing is a first step towards getting rid of "net neutrality". What is net neutrality? According to, net neutrality means no discrimination. Net neutrality prevents Internet providers from blocking, speeding up or slowing down Web content based on its source, ownership or destination. Net neutrality is considered a prime reason why the Internet has driven economic innovation, democratic participation, and free speech online. It protects the consumer's right to use any equipment, content, application or service on a non-discriminatory basis without interference from the network provider. With net neutrality, the network's only job is to move data -- not choose which data to privilege with higher quality service.

The nation's largest telephone and cable companies -- including AT&T, Verizon, Comcast and Time Warner -- want to end net neutrality and become Internet gatekeepers, deciding which Web sites go fast or slow and which won't load at all. They want to tax content providers to guarantee speedy delivery of their data. They want to discriminate in favor of their own search engines, Internet phone services, and streaming video -- while slowing down or blocking their competitors. These companies have a new vision for the Internet. Instead of an even playing field, they want to reserve express lanes for their own content and services -- or those from big corporations that can afford the steep tolls -- and leave the rest of us on a winding dirt road.

The idea of calculating one's bandwidth is important in preparation for this change in marketing strategy. In an article entitled "How To Measure Your Broadband Consumption", published by Joseph Moran on July 29th 2008, Moran says that now might be a good time to determine the volume of your Internet usage in case you have to conform to usage limits in the future. Simply trying to guesstimate the amount you use will probably be way off the mark, but there are a few ways you may be able to measure it. You can measure PC-based usage with a commercial software package, or you can measure overall usage by installing a router on your system. The extra advantage of installing a router is that you also acquire a wireless capability in your home or business.

Measuring PC-based usage: One option is a utility called DU Meter, which installs on an XP or Vista PC and monitors its Internet connection, recording precisely how much data gets downloaded and uploaded (after all, uploading counts as access too). One such product is DU Meter, which makes it easy to track usage with reports that show hourly, daily, weekly or monthly consumption. It can also display statistics in chart form. But DU Meter is not free, and it can only measure the bandwidth consumption on the specific computer where it is installed. A multiple-system license will cost more.

Measuring overall usage: It's important to remember that it's not just PCs that connect to the Internet these days; content downloaded to consumer electronic devices, like a game console or set-top box, also accounts for a large percentage of overall usage. Games can be as large as 1 GB, movie downloads usually exceed 1 GB, and HD movies are typically 4 GB to 5 GB in size.

Therefore, the ideal place to measure total Internet usage is at the router, since the data to or from any of your connected devices must pass through it. You can check to see if your router tracks data sent and received via the Internet by logging into its admin interface and finding an option labeled router status, connection statistics, or something similar. (Look for the entry marked WAN, or Wide Area Network, which represents your Internet connection.)

Although most routers track Internet usage, many report the information in terms of packets rather than bytes. Since packets can be different sizes, it's not a useful measurement. In this case, you may be able to update your router with third-party firmware like DD-WRT or Tomato, both of which include bandwidth monitoring. Tomato's compatibility is limited to a handful of Linksys and Buffalo routers (albeit common ones), while DD-WRT is compatible with a broader range of devices, including many from Belkin, D-Link and Netgear. You can find detailed compatibility lists HERE and HERE, respectively.

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